The Trump Administration’s Assault on Asylum Seekers

It’s part of a broader strategic effort to eviscerate our humanitarian infrastructure.

Urgent cries for help recently rang out from an abandoned factory in Piedras Negras, Mexico.  More than a thousand asylum seekers, including young children, are locked in there against their will, without blankets or basic necessities.

This humanitarian crisis is a direct consequence of new restrictions imposed bythe Trump administration. Earlier this month, it ordered all Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their scheduled hearing. The head of Amnesty International decried the move as illegal, condemning it as a violation of human rights. The intention, he said, is clear: to traumatize and deter those seeking protection in our country.

But Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy is just the latest action in a larger-scale assault on our humanitarian policies. This administration has done more than any other in American history to make the United States not only unwelcoming, but blatantly punitive and discriminatory to those seeking a safe haven in our nation.

This should come as no surprise. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” As president, he’s tried to follow through on that pledge.

Vice President Pence has an even deeper history of being anti-refugee. As Indiana’s governor, he was sued by a private agency that helps refugees to settle in the United States. The work of this and similar agencies is funded in part by the federal government, which gives states money to help refugees under the Immigration and Nationality Act. These critical resources are used for employment and training, English language learning, and other supports to help refugees become economically self‐sufficient as quickly as possible. Pence refused to transfer these federal monies to resettlement agencies in Indiana that helped refugees from Syria.

Pence’s ban on aid to Syrians eventually wound up in court, where a federal judge ordered a permanent injunction halting the policy. U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt described Pence’s argument as equivalent to saying that “he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they’re black, but because he’s afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive, he isn’t discriminating.”

But now, Trump and Pence have taken their agenda to discriminate and exclude to the White House. In 2018, the U.S. admitted only 62 Syrian refugees, as compared to the more than 12,000 Syrian refugees admitted in the final year of the Obama administration. What’s more, 46 percent of the 84,995 refugees admitted in 2016 were Muslim, outpacing Christians, who made up 44 percent of the total. In 2018, most of the refugees admitted to the United States were Christian (roughly 70%), while Muslims dropped to just 15 percent of all refugeesfrom any country. In fact, only 22,491 refugees were resettled in the United States in 2018, the lowest number since the resettlement program opened in 1980.

Reducing the number of refugees allowed in the country is actually part of a strategic effort to eviscerate America’s humanitarian infrastructure. Without the admission of refugees, federal funding to resettlement organizations under the Immigration and Nationality Act does not follow.

Refugee resettlement agencies, which get most of their funding from the federal government, have been devastated by these cuts. Many are closing their doors or cutting more than half of their resettlement staff, including long-standing community-based service organizations such as Catholic Charities. In Tennessee, where I live, World Relief Nashville closed its doors, while other charities have drastically cut their programs. Members of my community in Nashville built a Habitat for Humanity house for a Catholic Charities worker who had to be laid off.

The shuttering of these organizations is not only bad for current refugees. It will hurt future ones who won’t have the support they need to resettle in the U.S. There is also a major detriment to the host communities, which lose individuals with valuable cultural and linguistic skills. Employers, too, have benefited greatly from these programs, as they have helped countless workers become employment ready.

But it appears that racism trumps humanitarianism in this administration, which has spent the last two years inciting fears and misbeliefs that immigrants and refugees pose a threat to our society, while diminishing their economic and cultural contributions.

Key Trump officials have tried this before. In the 2016 court decision against then-Governor Pence, the judge referred to Pence’s claims that Syrian refugees were dangerous as “nightmare speculation.” He and Donald Trump have now brought this nightmare to the White House. Its consequences are now playing out throughout our country.

Carolyn J. Heinrich

Carolyn J. Heinrich, Ph.D., is the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.